Thursday, 5 May 2011

Portsmouth & Brighton United Breweries Pompey Royal

Let’s do some detective work on what we might suppose to be the original version of this beer by Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries (henceforth, United) of the Elm Brewery, King Street, Southsea. This image, which is either beer mat or bottle label, often turns up on e-bay or similar sites where it has been variously described as a “Coronation Label” and dated “1954”. From this and the Royal in the title, we might deduce it was brewed as a commemorative ale for the 1953 coronation of our present Queen. Corroborative but anecdotal evidence for this appears on the Express FM History Show (local radio) web site for September 2009 with the item: “seven times winner of our local history quiz, Larry Nicholas, brought his considerable experience of beer drinking to bear on the history of United Breweries Pompey Royal beer that was especially brewed to mark the Queen’s coronation!” More reliable evidence is at the website of the Association For British Brewery Collectables. Under its Complete Commemorative Bottle Collectors List appears "Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries Ltd, Pompey Royal (Coronation Ale) (Blue and red neck strap) 1953."

But did the beer exist even earlier? In April 1953, a couple of months before the coronation, United were acquired by the local Brickwoods brewery. This itself is not an issue as, according to a paper by Philip Eley (1994, p23), “United was kept on as a separate subsidiary and continued to brew its own beers at King Street including a strong bottled ale named ‘Pompey Royal Golden Ale’”. This name clearly applies to our image, a “Golden Ale”, “Bottled at the Brewery”. Indeed, Eley also states (1994, p 24) that the King Street site continued bottling until September 1962, in which year United’s bottled Pompey Royal was replaced by Brickwood I.P.A.” Yet Eley then remarks that “the original gravity [of bottled Pompey Royal Golden Ale] was 1060° in 1950.” Not only is this three years before the Queen’s coronation but two years before the death of her father, King George VI.

Whitbread acquired Brickwoods in 1971, Eley consulted the Whitbread Archive for his paper and the specific source from which he obtained the original gravity of Pompey Royal is dated 19 April 1950. The year is mentioned twice, in the main text and the supporting footnote source, so it is unlikely to be a misprint. What does this suggest? One possibility is that a new version of United Pompey Royal was prepared for the Queen’s coronation. Remember that United continued to brew its own beers under its own name at its own site after the merger with Brickwood. Brickwoods definitely brewed its own bottled Coronation Ale. A label image can be seen at the website ‘The History of Brickwoods of Portsmouth’. A second but unlikely possibility is that Eley or his documentary sources were in error. Following the dispersion of the Whitbread Archive to the various local record offices, the United papers are now stored in the Portsmouth Public Library. It would be interesting to see if they can solve this puzzle; but in regard to Eley’s claims, the archive must be regarded as a highly reliable source.

And until we have evidence to the contrary, this leaves us with the fact that Pompey Royal, possibly even the version in our image, was a beer originally brewed for some purpose other than and prior to the present Queen’s coronation. Does the image afford any clues? What was meant by “Golden Ale” back then was clearly not the highly-hopped fragrant beers that now fall into the CAMRA category of that name, but interesting as it is to see the phrase used on the image, that remains something of an irrelevance. More importantly, the “Pompey’s Pillar” trademark was registered in 1932. If, as Eley states (1994, p 24), the bottled version of Pompey Royal continued until 1962, this gives a 30-year production span and possible dating for the image, although the recipe (and image design) could have changed significantly during that period. (Incidentally, don’t expect to find that Pillar in Portsmouth; it was erected by the aptly named Publius, Prefect of Egypt, at Alexandria, to record the conquest of that city in 296 AD.)

Other than that, there is little to go on but, as Portsmouth is home to the Royal Naval Dockyards, why must we assume that the Royal in the beer name originally referred to any monarch’s coronation? Other United bottled beers of the same period carried the same image, which has nothing regal about it. One might expect a Coronation Commemorative Bottle to carry a special design.

I’ll get back on this one after I’ve visited the Portsmouth Library.


Association for British Brewery Collectables, (Accessed 10th August 2011).

Eley, Philip (1994), ‘Portsmouth Breweries Since 1847’, The Portsmouth Papers, No. 63 (March), Portsmouth: Portsmouth Civic Council Offices.

Express FM History Show, (Accessed 3rd May 2011).

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